The meaning of work

“If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.”
― Thomas Merton

Put this heading into Google and it returns 2,420,000,000 search results. I only looked at the first page!

Given how replete is the Internet repository, I’m assuming that it must mean something or perhaps it’s just well-thumbed. Then again, it could be that employees are in desperate need of inspiration (and a whole lot more) as to why ennui is the touchstone of their existence and not aliveness in what they’re doing — paid or unpaid.

Seriously, suspend what you know, and ask yourself:

what is the meaning of work?

Note: I’m not asking the purpose of or reason for work; I asked its meaning.

Is it to provide?

It is it to give you something to live for?

Is it living a higher purpose?

Or, does it have no meaning?

The truth is that most people, especially those who’ve been in the game a few years, have given up the pretence that work matters and are simply going from day to day waiting until someone taps them on the shoulder and says:

“You’re retired.”

I know I’m not on the same page as most people in the HR or employee relations space, but to my mind, if we want to change the enduring malaise of work then we need to go much deeper than another workplace dressing-up exercise — the type that says you can be anything you want as long as you don’t colour outside the lines.

(In fact, for many people the message that rings out is: PUT UP OR SHUT UP!).

I’m in no doubt that what I’m postulating is beyond the reach of most companies. After all, they don’t exist to provide meaningful work let alone meaning to your work. They exist (in the main) to make great gobs of profit for a few. Even in employee-owned businesses, there’s little evidence of meaning. It’s like whitewashing meaning on the back of a bit more money:

“You’ve earned it…”

OK, smart arse Summerhayes, what do you suggest we do if we want to provide depth and spiritual fortification?

Ah, ever the better question.

Well, before you get embroiled in the meaning lexicon, perhaps you need to ask: what is work? Is it merely the paid variety, or does it go wider and deeper? Not that you have to take my word for it or even listen to me, but work is not a job title, even one you constantly buff up to make it sound better. As preposterous as it sounds, work is something that, most likely, isn’t routinised. That’s not to say it’s not habit-forming, but there’s a world of difference between a creative habit and one devoid of meaning. To get to the nub of work, what I see is a constant and inviolable process where every employee is constantly challenged to reinvent what they’re doing, even if that means they have to take a course correction or pivot. Trouble is managers want replaceable cogs and with the customer/client to please, it’s almost inconceivable that if you change the work constantly to fit someone’s predilection towards personal growth, you’ll be able to serve the customers’ demands. If I’m honest, given I’ve never seen my vision adopted in practice, it’s hard for me to put forward a hard and fast mission statement but then again, I’ve seen enough employee disengagement to last a lifetime and I can’t believe that work reinvention isn’t worth giving a whirl, no matter how risky it might be perceived.

Back to my meaning point. Let’s say that you’ve managed to ratchet up the brilliance of work and your people are happier now, how does this square with meaningful work?

At this stage, I’m drawn to a book that I first listened to about eight years ago: Speed of Trust by Stephen M. R. Covey. In it, he wrote about The Five Waves of Trust:

“First Wave: Self Trust. The key principle underlying this wave is credibility.

Second Wave: Relationship Trust. The key principle underlying this wave is consistent behaviour.

Third Wave: Organizational Trust. The key principle underlying this wave, alignment, helps leaders create structures, systems and symbols of organizational trust.

Fourth Wave: Market Trust. The underlying principle behind this wave is reputation.

Fifth Wave: Societal Trust. The principle underlying this wave is contribution.”

The reason I think it’s so relevant is that if you replace the word trust with meaning, you can see how work could be very different.

Self meaning — what is your why in and through work?

Relational meaning — how do you bring meaning and depth to your relationships?

Organisational meaning — how can your personal why chime with the company’s common purpose?

How do your company’s products or services bring meaning to the market? I think of a company like Patagonia:

The Activist Company

We believe the environmental crisis has reached a critical tipping point. Without commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, defend clean water and air, and divest from dirty technologies, humankind as a whole will destroy our planet’s ability to repair itself. At Patagonia, the protection and preservation of the environment isn’t what we do after hours. It’s the reason we’re in business and every day’s work.”

Societal meaning crosses over with the fourth level but you can see how, even for a small company, you might aspire to the world’s most meaningful company across your products and services.

I accept that this still doesn’t get to the core of meaning. For a start, is your meaning in life ever to be found in work? Possibly not. It may well be that your calling is not paid work, even work that’s eminently better or crafted to meet your personal needs and wants. Likewise, how can you find a board of directors willing to cast asunder their legacy — which might be quite successful — to craft a company where meaning was their sine qua non and not stakeholder value? And as for the wider picture, well, let’s be honest, if the current calamitous state of the world, driven in no small part by the way companies have pursued profit at all costs doesn’t wake up people to what they should be doing societally then we’re pretty much stuffed from the get-go.

In the end, I feel that this sort of meaning message is simply not one that any company is willing to countenance. It’s too big an ask.

But then again, I still believe, even if incrementally, it’s possible to change the world of work so that we build a business in the crucible of meaning and not one driven by profit — however that important that might appear.

Take care


Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash chinchilla_ching